New measures to support free speech, enable people to protect their reputation and help stop the use of unreasonable threats of being sued for libel were announced today.
The Government’s proposals aim to bring libel law up to date, striking the balance between protecting people’s right to free speech - including responsible journalism and scientific debate - from unjustified libel actions, while enabling people who have genuinely been defamed to protect their reputations. They will also explore ways to speed court cases up and cut the costs associated with defamation proceedings.
Unveiling the draft Defamation Bill today, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said:
‘The right to speak freely and debate issues without fear of censure is a vital cornerstone of a democratic society. In recent years though, the increased threat of costly libel actions has begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate, and investigative journalism.
‘The Government’s draft Defamation Bill will ensure that anyone who makes a statement of fact or expresses an honest opinion can do so with confidence.
‘However it is never acceptable to harm someone’s reputation without just cause, so the Bill will ensure defamation law continues to balance the needs of both sides and encourage a just outcome in libel cases.’
The draft Bill includes provision for:
- A new ‘public interest’ defence which can be used by defendants in defamation cases.
- A requirement for claimants to demonstrate substantial harm before they can sue.
- Reducing so-called “libel tourism” by making it tougher to bring overseas claims which have little connection to the UK in the English courts.
- A single publication rule, meaning repeat claims for libel cannot be made every time a publication is accessed on the internet.
Welcoming the draft Bill, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said:
‘For too long our outdated libel laws have made it easy for the powerful and the wealthy to stifle fair criticism. We cannot continue to tolerate a culture in which scientists, journalists and bloggers are afraid to tackle issues of public importance for fear of being sued.
‘These reforms will restore a sense of proportion to the law, upholding the importance of free speech while ensuring that people are able to defend themselves against unfair and untrue allegations. The Bill underlines the coalition government’s commitment to civil liberties and to healthy, open debate.’
A consultation paper has also been launched alongside the draft Bill, which includes questions on a number of other areas. These include the role of the internet, and a new court procedure to cut the sometimes overwhelming court costs associated with libel actions by encouraging early resolution of key issues. The Government will then consider whether these measures should be included when the Bill is put before Parliament.
The consultation is open from today until 10 June.
Notes to editors
- For more information contact the Ministry of Justice Press Office on 0203 334 3536
- The full measures included in the Draft Bill are as follows
- A new requirement that a statement must have caused, or is likely to cause, substantial harm in order for it to be defamatory
- A new statutory defence of responsible publication on matters of public interest
- A statutory defence of truth (replacing the current common law defence of justification)
- A statutory defence of honest opinion (replacing the current common law defence of fair/honest comment)
- Provisions updating and extending the circumstances in which the defences of absolute and qualified privilege are available
- Introduction of a single publication rule to prevent an action being brought in relation to publication of the same material by the same publisher after a one year limitation period has passed
- Action to address libel tourism by ensuring a court will not accept jurisdiction unless satisfied that England and Wales is clearly the most appropriate place to bring and action against someone who is not domiciled in the UK or an EU Member State
- Removal of the presumption in favour of jury trial, so that the judge would have a discretion to order jury trial where it is in the interests of justice
- Issues for consultation which have not been included in the draft Bill at this stage, but which the MoJ seeks views on, are:
- Responsibility for publication on the internet. The paper seeks views on whether the law should be changed to give greater protection to secondary publishers such as internet service providers, discussion forums and (in an offline context) booksellers, or alternatively how the existing law should be updated and clarified.
- A new court procedure to resolve key preliminary issues at as early a stage as possible, so that the length and cost of defamation proceedings can be substantially reduced.
- Whether the summary disposal procedure - where the court has the power to resolve a case quickly if either the claimant or respondent has no reasonable chance of success - should be retained, and if so whether improvements can be made to it.
- Whether there should be wider use of the court’s powers to order publication of a summary of its judgment in defamation cases, particularly where a suitable apology or correction cannot be agreed upon by both sides.
- Whether further action is needed beyond the proposals in the draft Bill and the introduction of a new court procedure to address issues relating to an inequality of arms in defamation proceedings, including whether any specific restrictions should be placed on the ability of corporations to bring a defamation action.
- Whether the current provisions in case law restricting the ability of public authorities and bodies exercising public functions to bring defamation actions should be placed in statute and whether these restrictions should be extended to other bodies exercising public functions.
- The draft Bill relates to the law in England and Wales only.